10 June 1998
Life in this celebrity press corps: Like wine, it got
better with age
Synopsis: Jim McDougals memory got better with age. This and other true-to-life tales from an accusers best friend, James B. Stewart.
A Voice from the Grave
James B. Stewart, The New Yorker, 6/1/98
Youd assume it was just a wry aside, James Stewarts opening sentence on Arkansas Mischief:
STEWART: Jim McDougal is one of the few people Ive known whose memory seemed to improve with the passage of time.
One would assume that this was a bit of sarcasm--a send-up of the way Jim McDougal began remembering various things when he stood convicted of white-collar crimes, and found himself trying to deal with Ken Starr to get a reduced prison sentence.
But life in this celebrity press corps means never, ever thinking that an accuser may be lying! And Stewart here goes to heroic lengths to keep this new tradition alive, as he struggles to overlook obvious doubts about a favorite accuser.
Was Jim McDougal a guy we could trust? Or should his new accusations be treated with caution? Listen to how Stewart treats this inevitable question--inevitable because, as Stewart himself writes: The question of credibility, as McDougal well knew, is the shadow over Arkansas Mischief.
STEWART: ...Jim did lie on many occasions. He lied under oath; he failed multiple lie-detector tests; and he admitted all this to me and others. Yet, however much he lied, he stoutly denied that he was a liar, as he understood the term. As he told it, he was a traditional Southern gentleman, and lying went against a code he grew up with...
Stewart goes on to detail the reasons why poor ol Jim had to lie:
STEWART: ...He lied, he said, only to protect people: himself, of course, but also his former wife, Susan, and the Clintons. His lying pained and embarrassed him, and he didnt like to see it in others.
And surely, of all the silly efforts weve seen to prop up accusers, this inane passage takes the large, gooey cake. Jim McDougal, were told, lied only to protect people. Why, it almost makes the guy sound noble. And who was the first person he chose to protect? Wouldnt you know it? He protected himself! Of course! The man simply needed protectin! But the desire to protect oneself from harm is a principal reason why most liars lie; and if McDougal told Stewart that didnt make him a liar, as he understood the term, then the lesson that Stewart should have drawn from that nonsense is that James McDougal didnt understand the term liar. Yep, thats exactly right, boys and girls--if you lie a lot, that makes you a liar, whether you prefer to think youre a liar or not; and even if your lies concern the Clintons, which seems to give you endangered species status in certain parts of this celebrity press corps.
Back to Stewart: before straight-facedly reciting McDougals outlook on lying, Stewart gives us the standard treatment about how lively and engrossing Curtis Wilkies book is. Curtis Wilkie, bless his soul, has captured Jims engaging southern style, and even anecdotes weve heard before come out sounding fresh in his telling. But how about one other question--do the anecdotes also come out sounding truthful?This is a question Stewart saves for the end, after he has rendered a long, loving treatment of ol Jims exciting new stories. Long after he has told us how detailed McDougals claims are; and long after he has lovingly toted up the number of times that ol Jim accuses the Clintons of lying; long after indulging in all that accusin, Stewart finally gets around to tryin to figure out if ol Jim has been tellin the truth. His treatment of the credibility of ol Jims new claims is as silly as everything else in his treatise. Bear with us:
STEWART: Does Arkansas Mischief represent his best efforts to tell the truth?...(I)s the book a good-faith rendering of events? Documents may turn up that confirm some of McDougals more sensational allegations. So may witnesses, many of whom McDougal identifies by name. And it must be said that McDougals only acknowledged lies relating to the Clintons have been attempts to tailor his story to theirs. What he now claims to be true is invariably more damaging to them than his earlier versions of events. But neither does he seem to have augmented his account to curry favor with Starr. For one thing, if he fabricated Clintons presence at the Castle Grande meeting with Hale why wouldnt he have offered an account that accorded more closely with Hales? For another, the story in the book about Clinton offering to pardon Susan McDougal wasnt one he even shared with Starr. My gut feeling is that McDougals autobiography really is an attempt to tell the truth...
Stewarts selective imagination is on full display in this passage. Ol Jim--struggling to get favorable treatment from Starr--never tells Starr about a corrupt pardon offer! And guess what never enters James Stewarts mind? It never enters James Stewarts mind that maybe this means the pardon offer didnt happen! Doesnt occur to him! And thats not all: Stewarts reader is never told that there is a long-standing problem with McDougals claim about the $2000 monthly retainer to the Rose Law Firm, which McDougal now tells us, for the first time, evolved from a $2000 monthly cash payment for influence. The howling problem with this story is never mentioned, though its been spelled out on the record for several years now. As we stated in our original treatment of the issue, why should we mess up a great new story with a great old story thats now wrong? (Again, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/19/98.)
To state the obvious: its easy to believe ol Jim is truthful when we simply ignore whats wrongwith his tales. After all--every story is a credible story, if we ignore the parts that just dont make sense! But then, ignoring howling problems with Clinton accusers has been a part of press practice from Gennifer Flowers right on. Stewart is hardly plowing new ground with his loving treatment of his engaging ol accuser.
Was ol Jim tellin the truth in these tales? THE DAILY HOWLER has no special way to be knowin. But we do know there are obvious, howling problems with these new tales, and its hard to imagine that James Stewart doesnt know it. That he simply chooses to avoid their mention--well, do we even need to tell our readers? How its all just a part of what we dolove to call: Life in this celebrity press corps?